Complexity of Building a SaaS Software Channel Program

Complexity of SaaS Pricing

Complexity of SaaS PricingIn my previous blog entry, I discussed about the complexity of channel development and channel alignment. I recommended for SaaS software vendors to use Business Model Canvas to compare the business model with the assumed business model of its prospective channel partner.

During the past few months I have spent time building a SaaS channel development educational program, a program that I wanted to be not only actionable, but providing information of all of the needed drivers that SaaS software vendors should be thinking about when building its channel strategy.  Call me old fashioned, but my  philosophy is to educate people of things that I have personal experience in. There are lots of consultants that “help” their clients doing things such as channel development, consultants that have never sold anything, but have read about it in books.  My strategy is to build something that is concrete and actionable (not academic) that my audience can use when thinking about their SaaS channels.

The way I initiated the development of the channel development alignment educational program in http://www.tellusacademy.com was to reflect on my own channel development experience (both as channel builder as well as reseller) and list the main things that I felt were crucial in getting channel partners to become excited. The way I started working on it was not from a traditional channel perspective. I asked myself a simple question: how is the channel partner going to make money? Once we identify this, we can worry about the software vendor (ISV) as without a profitable business model for the channel partner, there is no need to invest time and energy to plan something that will not work anyway.

If the financial success of the channel partner should be the foundation for the software vendor to evaluate the channel strategy, it is easy to assume that it is important for both the software vendor and the channel partner to understand how SaaS financial will change the business model and what kind of drivers each party needs to be thinking about. Therefore, I believe that every person working in the SaaS world needs to have a good and solid understanding in how the financial and operational model will change when running a SaaS business. I am sure that the CFO of the ISV and channel partner appreciates this.

I spent considerable time in reviewing the topics that both ISVs and channel partners should be thinking about. Besides having a solid understanding in SaaS financials, any vendor in today’s world has to be thinking about business model innovation and topics around that. How do we stay relevant today, tomorrow and next year? What is happening in our marketplace and what kind of actions do I have to take to ensure that my services or solutions are also appealing in the future? You would not believe how many organizations ignore this….it is amazing.

Another important factor to think about is to understand the expectations from the channel and ISV perspective. What can the ISV expect from the channel and what should the channel expect from the ISV? This is a also something that has changed in the last couple of years as channel partners have a tough time to adjust to the recurring revenue model from the traditional “one big lump sum model”. Besides this, traditional channel partners are not very good at account management and this is a huge issue for SaaS vendors as upselling and ensuring retention is a top priority to any SaaS vendor. The ones that have negative churn can say that they have been successful at least in the upsell to existing clients.

Channel roles and responsibilities is a topic that seems to be very unclear to both software vendors and channel partners. Basic questions such as “who is going to provision the cloud instance” is not clear and questions such as billing is also a question that many struggle with. Should the software vendor manage the billing or should it be the channel partner? What if the end customer does not pay the bills, should the software vendor still bill the channel partner and even take them to court for unpaid balances? In the traditional channel world we can argue that most of these types of questions could be easily sorted out due to known practices, but the SaaS/app world is still a bit unclear who does what.

Part of the channel profitability discussion should be a discussion of channel margins. In my course, I will give examples of a typical channel partner scenario where we will model one sales rep and his/her targets and what it means to the channel partner. This type of exercise is extremely health for any software vendor to see the reality of a channel partner and their desire to build a solid business. If you are a software vendor, have you modeled the channel partner business and how your solution might play in that space?

And finally, any software vendor will either become successful or fail and it is going to be based on the channel program that the organization is going to build and maintain. During my SaaS channel development course, I will also address the main drivers of channel management and key issues that an ISV need to be thinking about.

It was fun to create this course as everything is based on experience either from my own work or the teams that I have worked with for more than 20 years. As said, I do not believe in education of best practices if the person does not have any personal experience. This type of experience comes with blood, sweat and tears.

 

 

 

 

photo by: Sean MacEntee

Is a Solid Channel Program the foundation for increasing your sales?

This is the fourth blog posting about VAR Channel programs.In my first blog entry I claimed that the ISV needs to realize that it works for the channel, not the other way around. In the second blog entry, I initiated the discussion of why it is important for an ISV to really pay attention for its channel program and educate the channel specifically in the cloud transformation as that is what the channel is saying is needed.  In the third blog entry I explained the channel program developed by SolidWorks and what type of findings that this ISV found out as reason for its successful channel development and results.

In this blog entry I wanted to portray the VAR Development Program modules that SolidWorks developed with some comments around these. The program “Channel Capabilities Assessment” is divided into four separate areas in following way:

VAR Channel Program-003

When you review the areas above, there isn’t really big surprises as such, but what is interesting is that most ISVs neglect many of these areas and this will hurt the ISV in the long run. If the ISV does not know its channel and its partners well, how can the CAM estimate anything in respect to forecasting or even the skillsets that the channel partner has in the sales process itself.

What David Skok explains in this blog entry is that to really understand the channel, SolidWorks had to put a “social scientists” hat one to really study the behavior of the partner and to understand their capabilities and what was really needed from the ISV. It is so easy for us to ignore to reach out to our customer/partners/prospects to ask: “how can I help you guys to become successful”. If you are working with a channel, ask yourself how much you really know about your channel partner business? I would bet that not much. To be transparent, I have had the same issue myself, still have but have tried to really dig into my customer case and understand what is needed. It is an ongoing battle and challenge.

In the SolidWorks case, a survey of 65-questions was created with six categories: Business Planning, Finance, HR, Sales, Marketing and Technical Support. Two person teams where trained to do face-to-face interviews and each interview took an entire day.  What I find fascinating is the way these VARs where ranked. Two dimension was created, one that portrays “Vision and Execution” and the second was based on “Willing and Able”.

The process was not only good for the ISV to achieve better understanding of the VAR channel, but it was also interesting for the VAR channel partner to understand its needs and also to get a better understanding how the ISV can help the channel to become better. SolidWorks used a modified or variant of GE Market Management model to categorize the VAR channel partners and I will present this in my next blog entry of this topic.

The conclusion that we can make of this blog entry is that an ISV needs to put time and effort to understand its channel and this will take time and money. Besides this, it is imperative to rank and categorize the business partners so the ISV can allocate its resources to the partners that are “Willing and Able” to perform and invest in the joint future.

Stay tuned for more….

A Case Study – Creating a VAR Development Program

This blog entry continues on my first blog entry where I concluded that the channel does not work for the ISV, it is the ISV that has to ensure that the channel has the tools to become successful with the solution itself.

In my second blog entry I highlighted a case study of a successful ISV that was able to grow its business by doing the channel development by identifying an impactful approach where the VAR channel felt that it was a win-win situation for both sides.

In this blog entry I am high lightening the VAR development program (Phase 1) that SolidWorks created for its channel and as I stated in my previous blog, this program was almost like a mini-MBA where the ISV wanted to facilitate and help its VAR channel to run its business more effectively. The program that David Skok highlights in his blog entry as phase 1 of the development program is divided into two main areas: Business Management and Sales Management.

VAR Channel Program-001

From the picture above, the channel assessment was reviewed from these two perspectives and each of these perspectives are divided into smaller components that have relevance specifically when running a VAR business.

Cash is king as they say and I have also experienced this as an entrepreneur. What ISVs tend to forget is that somebody has to fund the activity to build the funnel of the solution that the ISV wants to sell. So lets review the typical steps that we expect to happen when an ISV signs up new channel partner:

  • The ISV wants to ramp up the activities immediately once the deal is signed, which means that VAR technical and sales team needs to be trained and educated of the intransiences of the product and learn how to take objections from the target prospect market segment.
  • The ISV expect the VAR channel marketing team to dedicate resources to start building the funnel and sometimes forgetting that there are other products that they might have in their portfolio.
  • The ISV Channel Account Manager puts effort in getting things going as he/she is the one that will have the pressure of getting first deals going and to ensure that he/she meets the budget.

With all of the effort that has been put into the joint effort, the VAR finally signs its first deal and now everybody can be happy. On top of this, the deal is very sizable and this makes the VAR a bit nervous as there are some financial risks that it now has to carry as it carries the paper with the end user organization.

The project starts, everybody is working hard on getting the client happy but sudden and unexpected issues comes up in the implementation. The customer tells the VAR that it is unacceptable and they will not pay until the software has been fixed. The VAR tells the customer that they do not have the means to fix it as it is the ISV that carries that responsibility. The customer tells the VAR that that is not their problem, the responsibility is with the VAR as that is whom they bought the solution from.

As the invoicing relationship of the solution delivery is between the VAR and the end user organization, the VAR runs into issues as an invoice has already been issued from the ISV and they want to get paid.  This puts the VAR management to sweat and now they really understand the consequences of this and need to do something about it.  The ISV wants to get paid, but the channel partner has not got paid yet. Worse than this, the software included bugs that the VAR can’t do anything about and has to wait for a fix. The ISV still wants to get paid, no matter what as its view is that this issue has nothing to do with them. I am sure you get the scoop of the vicious circle.

If the ISV is reasonable, they will work with the VAR and the end user customer to get it right, but unfortunately I have seen cases where the VAR has really run into a wall. I can’t imagine how that feels as I run my own business every day and have to consider risks and rewards when conducting the business. In large organizations with huge cash piles, this might not be a problem, but for the majority of ISVs, SIs and MSPs, this could be a huge issue.

The scenario above describes some of the areas where the VAR has to pay special attention when running its business. The number one in business management side is cash flow and how to manage it when dealing with ISVs and purchase management overall. I have run companies with high growth and one of the most pressing issue seems always be cash flow. People want growth, but with growth you need cash flow. Sales in your books does not mean that you have money in your bank account. Having lots of receivables might feel good, but you can’t feed your family with receivables.

The second area is “Sales Capacity” where typically small VARs become the victims of their own success. Skok concludes that a typical successful VAR is where the business owner is number one in sales, but one person does not scale up to grow the company. There needs to be more than one to scale the business. If the owner becomes the gatekeeper, then that becomes the bottleneck for the growth for both the VAR and the ISV.  What a VAR needs is a strong sales manager that can scale the sales, follow and create processes and the owners should keep away from that (my observation).

Also, what is typically undervalued among VARs and ISVs is market research and what sales people tend to use as an excuse for poor sales is that the “market segment is saturated’. Good research includes information about market size, market share, historic customer growth rates and sales coverage etc..

According to Skok, one of the most difficult task that VARs are struggling with is the requitement. I can really believe this. The key for success is to build an interview process to identify the right candidates and even if you become good at this, you will still fail. I have.

What an ISV might see with its channel is that VARs are hiring new employees, but there are more leaving the company that coming in. So what will happen is that the VAR has new people that are learning “the ropes” and then the ones that have learned are leaving for different reasons. The VAR ends up having a situation where the skills don’t meet the demand of the market.

One key thing that is often ignored is to ensure that the employees have a good view of their professional development,  like sales people having strong  product training, presentation training, and  sales management training.

And finally, and probably one of the most difficult tasks: how to manage and review the pipeline that everybody presents to the management. How should the VAR and ISV ensure consistency in the pipeline? One of the key things for both ISV and VAR is to create a standardized view on the pipeline, not based on each and every sales persons personal definition which is typically biased to his/her own preferences.

The question is what kind of deliverables can an ISV and VAR expect from both Business and Sales Management exercise? The way Skok defines them is in following way:

VAR Channel Program-002

It is obvious that each one of these need to be worked on and each ISV will have to estimate how much to put effort into this exercise. Also, what something might work for one organization, could be very different for another.

The next phase of this case study I will discuss about the way that the case study ISV segmented and categorized its VARs and their ability to grow. Stay tuned for more.